Popular Response

Popular literary America had been waiting for a pioneer. They found it in James Fenimore Cooper. The greatest accomplishment of his 1823 novel The Pioneers was not that it was the first American novel, but that Americans read it. With The Pioneers, politically conservative Cooper went straight for the people. He bypassed the critics with the pre publication printing of extracts from the novel in The New York Commercial Advertiser. Critics tended to scoff right back at Cooper, naming him parochial and later crediting the literary impact of his work on its reliance on mythic archetypes, and not what Cooper saw as the integrity of his work, his "respect for the natural virtue of the common mind" (Wallace, 121).

The greatest impact of The Pioneers was the wedding of novel and audience in the American popular literary arena. European sales were disappointing for Cooper. The Pioneers sold less than one thousand copies in London in its first year of publication (Wallace, 167). But, Cooper's novel was not written for European success. It was written as an alternative to the European novel. Cooper's "presentation of a socially marginal hero as the essential American" gave Americans a reason to read (Wallace, 172). The Pioneers was wildly popular in the United States, selling 3500 copies by noon on the day of its publication. By 1823 when The Pioneers was published, Cooper had already defined himself as a man of letters. America had been waiting for The Pioneers.

Cooper's audience is generally assumed to have been "rural, parochial, populist, and Jacksonian" (Wallace, 174). But the effect of The Pioneers on American art and drama speaks to the presence of a more sophisticated audience. Illustrators like F.O.C. Darley and his imitators jumped on the bandwagon of Cooper's success.

The modern cultural implications of The Pioneers are omnipresent in America. The cowboy hero, the wild west, the stoic Indian are all American popular icons, with rich and complicated cultural consequences. The notion of the independent, brawny frontiersman exists in our culture still.

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